Make-up: A Glamorous History (second episode) – BBC 2

Standard

  I am so impressed with this series!   I thought it was just going to be, well, lipstick, powder and paint, but the episode on the Georgians was great and so too was this episode on the Victorians.  I couldn’t help thinking how some of the Victorian ideas on appearance were still influencing children’s books written in the mid-20th century, which I was reading as a kid in the early 1980s.  As Lisa Eldridge pointed out, Victorian ideas on being able to judge someone’s personality based on how they looked verged on the bonkers – but, in Enid Blyton adventure and mystery books, you always know that anyone with a thick neck or “eyes set too closely together” will turn out to be a baddie!   And, at the Chalet School, wearing more than the slightest hint of make-up is a sign that you are a Very Bad Girl, and yet you’re supposed to look attractive at all times.  As Lisa said, that works OK if you’re naturally stunning, but it really doesn’t for the rest of us!  I do not have the nerve to go anywhere without make-up on.

All sorts of other things also made their way into this – from the Contagious Diseases Act, to people having issues with red hair because of Scottish and Irish nationalism, to soldiers being expected to have huge moustaches because it was thought that Indian men with lots of facial hair looked uber-virile and that British men should try to get the same look.

It started with fairly standard stuff about Victorians not being keen on the idea of make-up because it was associated with being on the stage, and also because the later Victorians were obsessed with the idea that cleanliness was next to godliness and thought that a clean face meant a bare face.  But it went beyond that, to talk about how it was felt that, if you covered your face with make-up, you might be trying to hide something … like the fact that your face was ravaged by syphilis, and from there it got on to the Contagious Diseases Act, and how women were so frightened of being dragged in for those horrific speculum examinations that they were afraid to wear make-up in case it led to their being mistaken for prostitutes.   Very interesting point.  And it also talked about the general attitudes towards women, and how a lot of make-up looked as if you were putting yourself out there rather than fading into the background.

There was also some talk about phrenology, which always makes me think of Mr Rochester doing his “feeling your bumps” thing, and the general idea of being able to judge people by their appearance.  It didn’t go into eugenics in too much detail, but it did touch on the idea.  And it also mentioned the idea of TB being seen as making people look attractive – bright eyes, rosy cheeks, etc – and compared it to the heroin chic idea of the 1990s.  It was just fascinating how the programme developed.

There was also some talk about hair.  There are still some rules about facial hair in the Armed Services, aren’t there?  Anyway, we heard about how, after the Crimean War, soldiers were banned from shaving above their top lips, and this was in force until 1916 … and how this was because Indian men with luxuriant beards and moustaches were thought to look very manly.  I have to say that I am not a fan of men having either beards or moustaches, although I know that some people wear them for religious reasons, but each to their own!

And then the issue of red hair.  I thought that prejudice against people with red hair was to do with religion, because Judas was supposed to have had red hair, and the Spanish Inquisition associated red hair with being Jewish, but the programme made the point that it was also associated with Scotland and Ireland – and presumably, by extension, with ideas of Irish and Scottish nationalism.  If Nicola Sturgeon was watching, she was probably quite chuffed to hear that!   Interesting idea.  I don’t really know why, but everyone has this image of Jacobites as having bright red hair.  You can even buy Jacobite tam o’shanters with a load of false red hair attached, which is utterly ridiculous: the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie both wore white powdered wigs, and had brownish hair!    Scotland and Ireland do both have far higher percentages of people with red hair than England does, though.

All this from talking about make-up!   This series really is good.  It’s a shame that there’s only one episode left.

 

Make-up: A Glamorous History – BBC 2

Standard

  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this programme, presented by make-up artist Lisa Eldridge, but it turned out to be pretty interesting, as she discussed how upper-class High Georgian ladies piled their hair so high that they had to sit on the floor of their carriages rather than their seats, and were so obsessed with painting their faces with white lead that at least one woman died of lead poisoning as a result.  The men got in on the act too, with the craze for “macaroni” dress – tall, powdered wigs, diamante buckles on shoes, et al.

Meanwhile, Georgian lads’ mags printed league tables ranking famous women according to their beauty, grace and elegance, with Georgiana Cavendish nee Spencer, the famous Duchess of Devonshire, always coming out on top.  Georgiana actually employed a personal hairdresser, who was paid more than her lady’s maid, housekeeper, butler or coachmen.  And such was the general interest in all these goings-on that shop windows were full of prints of pictures of the rich and famous, and people even rented hotel rooms so that they could hang out of the windows to watch their faves go by.  And we think that obsession with celebs is a 21st century thing!

But, according to Lisa, the shock of the French Revolution caused such a reaction against excessive make-up that it wasn’t until the days of glam rock and the New Romantics that people went so OTT again. I can honestly say that I’d never really thought of it quite like that before, but I can see where she was coming from!   I was going to mention Adam Ant, but dandy highwaymen and Prince Charming are more Regency than High Georgian 🙂 .

However overboard the whole make-up and hair thing went in Britain, it was far worse in France, where hundreds of courtiers would actually go and watch Marie Antoinette performing her toilette, because it was such a long and elaborate job.  It’s fairly hard to argue that that in itself had much to do with the French Revolution, but, OK, it was all part of the culture of excess.

The general idea of the programme was that make-up says a lot about the era, and that, in this instance, the upper-classes used make-up to show off their wealth and power – an ordinary person would never have been able to afford those sorts of cosmetics, nor would they have had the time to apply them.  The programme was as much about hairstyles as make-up, but, OK, the two things go together.  I could have done without the attempts to make everything “relevant” to today – I’m sure we can all think about the Georgians without needing to think about the Kardashians – but it really was quite interesting.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Standard

This book about the Overbury Scandal, the alleged murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by the Countess of Essex, Frances Devereux nee Howard, who had her marriage annulled so that she could marry the Earl of Somerset, with whom she’d been having an affair, and who’d also been having an affair with James I/VI (keep up, keep up!), would have been very interesting had the author not infuriatingly referred throughout to Frances as “Frankie”.  “Frankie”?  In the 1610s?  Seriously?   It really did annoy me.  Also, it means that I’m now being earwormed by Sister Sledge.

If Lucy Jago had just stuck to “Frances” (I did wonder if maybe she had some school playground-ish aversion to “Fanny”, but even “Fanny” wasn’t really used until the mid-18th century), the book would have been excellent.  It was written from the point of view of Anne Turner, the impoverished widow of a doctor, who was hanged for being an accessory to the murder; and it really was entertaining.  There was so much going on here, much of it aspects of society which haven’t changed very much.  The title of the book reflects the fact that the aristocratic, influential Carrs – who, as the author points out several times, spent more on fripperies in an average month than most people could hope to earn in many years of hard work – were imprisoned for a few years but then pardoned, whereas the four “ordinary” people implicated went straight to the hangman’s noose.

The book gives a fascinating depiction of life both at Court and in the poorer areas of London, and brings in the effects on the Overbury trial of views of women and how they should behave, the Pendle Witch Trials, prejudice against Catholics – even though, or possibly because, the Howards, despite being Catholic, were able to dominate the Court – , rivalries between English and Scottish courtiers, and the difference in culture between the Whitehall bubble and everyone else.

To cut a long story short, Frances Howard was married off to the Earl of Essex, the marriage was unhappy, and she took up with Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, the lover of James I and close friend of Thomas Overbury.  She wanted her marriage annulled, Overbury opposed it, the Howards turned on him, and he was imprisoned, possibly for refusing the position of ambassador to Tsar Michael of Russia.   He then mysteriously died.  The annulment and remarriage went ahead.  It was later claimed that Frances had had Overbury poisoned, and that was what a trial found.

Anne Turner was some sort of companion to Frances. She was the widow of a doctor, and mistress of a politician, became well-known because she was the only supplier of a saffron starch used to make fashionable yellow ruffs, and is often said to have been a madam of “houses of ill repute”.  However, in the book, her husband left her with a lot of debts, she genuinely expected her lover to marry her and was badly let down when he said that his position of court meant that he couldn’t be associated with her, and she made money by working as a general dressmaker.

Incidentally, Anne’s lover’s name was Arthur Mainwaring, but Lucy Jago’s changed it to Arthur Waring because she said that the name made her think of Dad’s Army, and sounded too silly alongside Frankie Howard (even spelt Howard rather than Howerd).  Right.  Let’s all change historical figures’ names because they remind us of TV characters.  OK, OK, I would have kept waiting for him to say “Don’t tell him, Pike”, but even so.  And Captain Mainwaring’s name wasn’t even Arthur!  It was George.  The actor who played him was called Arthur.

Anyway, to get back to the point 🙂 … so, Anne’s quite sympathetically portrayed.  They’re actually both quite sympathetically portrayed – Anne as an impoverished widow let down by a man, Frances as a young woman forced into an unhappy marriage by family politics – and they’re shown as having a very close friendship despite their different positions in life, with Frances, at the end, trying to save Anne but being unable to do so.

Lucy Jago’s take on it is that Robert Carr wasn’t involved, and that Anne and Frances did send poison to the Tower but that it was never used.  No-one’s really sure what’s happened.  Overbury had health problems anyway.  There was talk about poisoned enemas, poisoned cakes … and an interesting point’s made that poison was seen as a foreign, Catholic way of bumping people off!  To this day, it’s associated with Lucrezia Borgia (probably unfairly) and Catherine de Medici (fairly).  There was also some talk of witchcraft, which fitted the atmosphere of the times.

So there was a lot going on, and this book reflects this.  It also brings in the death of Prince Henry and how devastated people were about that, and it’s just generally a very interesting depiction of the lives of different people at an interesting time.  Even though the Gunpowder Plot’s one of the best-known events in British history, and even though the Pendle Witch Trials are so well-known too, James I and VI’s reign – and, of course, it was also crucial in that it was the start of the personal union between England and Scotland – does tend to get a bit overlooked, in between the Glorious Elizabethan Age and the build-up to the Civil War.

All in all, a very good book.  But “Frankie”?  Seriously?!

 

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Standard

This is about four generations of women living in Jerusalem, from the closing years of Ottoman rule, through the period of the British Mandate, and on into the early decades of Israeli independence.   It’s written in quite a rambling way, and jumps backwards and forwards in time, so it’s not particularly easy to follow; but it’s an interesting portrayal of the life of a family in changing times and under different regimes.  It also makes a change to read a book about a (Sephardi) family who’d been living in Jerusalem for many generations before Ottoman rule ended, rather than an Exodus/One More River type immigration novel.

The women are supposed to be linked by a common thread, which is that they all (except the youngest) marry men who love someone else.   That’s not actually that important to the story, but the context of the different relationships is.  This is a Sephardi family who’ve lived in Jerusalem for many generations, whereas most novels about the British Mandate period feature recent immigrants from either Eastern Europe or Britain or the US.  The first two generations of husbands weren’t allowed to marry the women of their choice because the women were Ashkenazi, and that was an absolutely no-no, no more to be considered than marrying a Muslim woman or a Christian woman.  The third generation husband loved an Italian Catholic woman whom he met whilst serving with the British Army during the Second World War, an interesting reminder of how many men from the “Yishuv”, the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine, served with the British forces.

The “Beauty Queen” is the third generation woman, badly injured in a bombing during the unrest surrounding the end of the British Mandate, but the book’s no more about her than it is about her daughter, mother or grandmother, and her sisters feature strongly as well.  The family undergoes various financial ups and downs, and it’s always the women who end up having to sort things out.  The book’s about their personal relationships and problems, with the historical events just forming the background, but the historical events are very much there.  The author isn’t very complimentary about the British administration, but I think it has to be accepted that the mandatory periods in the Middle East were not Britain or France’s finest hours.

Much more than being an Israeli book, it’s a Sephardi book.  We see all the traditions, such as naming children after grandparents, and the author’s tried very hard to show how Sephardi women in Mandatory Palestine would have spoken.  She’s actually gone a bit overboard – surely no-one said “may he/she be healthy” after every single name they mentioned – but she deserves marks for effort!  Saying “pishcado y limon” to ward off the evil eye comes up a lot – I’d never heard that before. There are lots of Ladino words thrown in, without being translated: I did GCSE Spanish so I was OK with this, but someone who doesn’t know any Spanish or Ladino might get very confused!

It was quite confusing to read generally, because of the rather rambling narrative, but it was something different and I did enjoy it.

Leonardo – Amazon Prime

Standard

I was really looking forward to this.  Renaissance Italy plus Aidan Turner – what more could you ask?  However, it’s just … strange.  Our hero is handsome, charming, polite, kind, talented, full of integrity, flashes the odd brooding look, has risen above a difficult childhood and always nobly overcomes adversity.  He’s a dream, apart from sometimes throwing in a bit of annoying 21st century speak about everyone being on a journey and painting their truth.  However, what he *isn’t* is anything like Leonardo da Vinci.  Or indeed any other artist in Renaissance Italy, where you looked for a wealthy patron (rather than telling the Duke of Milan that you couldn’t come and work for him because you’d just committed yourself to a job elsewhere and couldn’t possibly go back on your word) and painted whatever they paid you to paint.

Oh, and he’s been wrongly accused of murder and is being pursued by a policeman whose dad used to be in Howards’ Way.  Er, yes.  I’ve read a million and one books about 15th and 16th century Italy.  Funny how none of them ever mentioned Leonardo and the Mystery of the Murdered Muse.

The Murdered Muse is Caterina da Cremona, who may or may not have existed, may or may not have been Leonardo’s muse, and may or may not have been his mistress.  However, the marketing for this series has focused on its exploring whether or not Leonardo was gay.   And, yes, it did bring in the true story of he and three other young men being charged over their involvement with a male prostitute.  However, it turned it into a silly plot in which a jealous rival paid the said prostitute to seduce him, and tipped off the authorities so that they went round and caught them in flagrante, all so that our man Leonardo would get the boot from Verrocchio’s studio.  So, instead of the focus being on Leonardo’s sexuality, it was on somebody else having it in for him.  Is it me or was that rather insensitive?

Finally, they’ve thrown in a storyline about an old witch telling his mother, when he was in his cradle, that he was cursed to be alone and destroy everything he loved.  Because a bird had flown into his bedroom.  And him being haunted by this. I’m not sure if this bit’s meant to be Victorian Gothic or the Brothers Grimm, but it’s certainly not Italian Renaissance.

Er, yes.  So this isn’t really what I was hoping for.  But, hey, it’s got Aidan Turner, and lots of nice shots of Milan and Florence.

So far, things have not gone well for our man.  Mainly because he is so obsessed with painting “the truth”.  He upset Verrocchio by refusing to paint Caterina as a Roman goddess, because that wasn’t how he saw her.  Then he upset Caterina by painting her as he actually did see her, but refusing to leave out a scar on her shoulder, which reminded her that she was unable to have children due to a carriage accident, and feared she would never find a partner.  It was a sad story, but how would internal injuries leave a scar on your shoulder?  Then he got the sack for being gay.  And upset his dad, who’d paid good money for his apprenticeship.  Then he upset the father of a wealthy bride-to-be by painting her holding a symbol of the family of the bloke she actually fancied, not the family of her fiance.  And then he upset the Church by making a mess of a painting of the Adoration of the Magi, and being obsessed with making St Joseph look like his dad.

But presumably things will get better.  Oh, and, just in case you were wondering, no, he didn’t really get accused of murder.  Amazon Prime made that up.  I have no idea why.

Other than references to the Church, an appearance by Ludovico Sforza and one mention of the Medici, I’m getting very little sense of any historical context here.  And I’m not really getting much sense of Leonardo da Vinci.  But it’s all very easy on the eye.

 

 

 

Churchill – Channel 5

Standard

  Whilst I could have done with a bit less Freudian psycho-analysis (we were told every two minutes during the first episode that Churchill had been desperate for his father’s approval, wanted to emulate his father, and was always “trapped in the moment of his father’s death”), the first two episodes of this have been very entertaining.  I love Churchill as a historian, especially when he’s writing about the first Duke of Marlborough, but his own life was pretty interesting as well: the first episode took us from Blenheim Palace to the North West Frontier, to Oldham, to South Africa, to Westminster.  Shame it didn’t mention the fact that one of the people who helped him hide from the Boers was an Oldham coal miner: I like that story 🙂 .

The interpretation of his life was quite strange – apart from the obsession with his father, the presenters’ idea was that he thought politicians had to be celebs.  I’m not entirely convinced about that, but, yes, he probably did go off both to the Boer War and the Great War more with the aim of winning attention and popularity than anything else … rather drastic decisions!   And it worked.  You’d think that the wealthy aristocrat, turning up at the Front with a load of luggage including his own bath, and having been all over the papers after he was pushed under the bus and made the scapegoat for Gallipoli (for which he was partly to blame, but so were plenty of others), would have been resented by the ordinary soldiers, but it sounded as if they all thought he was great.

It’s unfortunate that his own father didn’t – we were shown extracts of letters in which Randolph Churchill said that young Winston would probably turn out to be a “social wastrel and a failure”.  And his mother was more interested in her social life and affairs than in her children.  So rather a sad start in life, despite the immense privilege.  None of this was anything that most viewers wouldn’t already have known, but it was interesting.

So too was hearing about his Army service in India, and then the crazy escapade in South Africa in which he escaped from a Boer POW camp armed only with a bar of chocolate – you really couldn’t make it up!    Then came his first forays into politics, but then the Gallipoli disaster, his rejoining the Army, and then his successful return to politics against all the odds.

I really did enjoy both episodes, and am looking forward to the rest of the series.  I thought they might wokify it and make irrelevant criticisms, but they didn’t – they did make the point that some of his views on imperialism and race might not be acceptable now, but they also made it clear that the articles he wrote whilst in South Africa were very well-received, so he was only reflecting the views of the time.  Instead, they focused on what a character he was – he really was one of a kind!  Enjoying this, and looking forward to more 🙂 .

The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Standard

  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey

Standard

This is a well-meaning book centred on the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium set up at Saranac Lake, New York, in the 1880s for the treatment of TB.  Unfortunately, much of the story makes very little sense.  There are “outbreaks” of TB, which see whole families suddenly wiped out, relatives put into quarantine, homes disinfected, the deceased’s possessions burnt, and people trying to avoid going out and about for fear of contagion.  That certainly fits with epidemics of many diseases in Victorian and Edwardian times, but not TB, which was endemic rather than epidemic.  People “test positive” for TB, as if it could be definitively diagnosed by one test.  Most bizarrely of all, a New York City doctor, circa 1905, advises a pregnant patient with a history of spinal TB to have an termination.  There’s no way that a doctor at that time would have given that advice, whatever his personal views.

The author’s clearly done a lot of research into life and treatment at the sanatorium (spelt “sanitarium” because it was more of a resort than a hospital, but that spelling annoys me for some reason, sorry!), but the rest of it is really rather odd.

And it’s told in the first person, but from the viewpoints of several different characters who all do their bits in the first person, which is even more confusing!

On the positive side, the details about life at this enormous sanatorium/sanatarium/resort is fascinating.  The title of the book comes from the porches in which patients would sit whilst resting in the open air.  We hear a lot about examinations and procedures, and a lot of detail about the food, and also about the fundraising efforts which raised money to enable poorer patients to be treated without payment.  The whole area became dominated by the sanatorium, and the site’s still there, a type of museum.

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for ages, and I can only assume that I got it because the blurb made me think about the sanatoria in the Chalet School books and Elsie Oxenham’s Swiss books!   But it’s important to remember just how rife TB was in Victorian times.  Here in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where you had a lot of people living close together, and a lot of people had lung issues anyway because of the cotton fly and the coal dust in the air, and the climate was, ahem, not the world’s driest, it was the number one killer.

There are better books about it than this, though.  It’s very odd that the author seems to have done so much research into some aspects of it, and yet others make no sense at all.